Stoner by John Williams

No, this has nothing to do with weed. The novel Stoner is a human drama, the story of William Stoner: son, husband, father, lover, scholar, stoic. Born to poor farmers in Mississippi, Stoner allows his father to direct his fate by attending Columbia university’s school of agriculture in the hopes he can bring back expertise to make the farm more successful. During a sophmore english survey class he falls in love with literature and switches to a literature major. He fails to tell his parents until after graduation that he will not return to help them on the farm at which point his future is once again directed by outside events. World War One is in full swing and the dearth of able bodied men means recent graduate William Stoner finds an open teaching position at his alma mater. After a year or two teaching, our shy, unassuming protagonist meets a beautiful young woman and pursues a goal for the first time in his life. Despite that his fate is yet again decid by another. The mother of his prospective bride decides the details of their nuptuals and we, the readers, have hint after hint that it is not the young woman’s destination as a married woman that motivates her but her past as a coddled but unloved and possibly even abused little girl. His marriage is rocky due in part to his wife’s neuroses and in part to his stoicism which presents as a total lack of reaction.

This story is an intensley human story. I was browsing reddit the other day and came across an admission from a young man who had questioned and rejected his Christian beliefs over time. After telling a shortened version of his conversion, he asks if he should write a book of his story. The concensus was “no, your story isn’t interesting enough” but I disagree. After reading Stoner I think a life doesn’t have to be spectacular to be meaningful and to make a story worth writing about.

First in making the story worth reading was the poetic language. It is, of course, prose, but the word choices evoke such beauty, even amid sorrow, that the story is lifted from the mundane to the extraordinary. Stoner lives through both world wars, participates in neither, and yet is profoundly changed by the war culture which surrounds him. He observes the depression, his wife’s family is directly affected by the stock market crash, yet his position as a tenured professor is under no threat. He observes the world as almost an outsider. The words Williams uses to craft the story of a life are emotionally evocative regardless of whether he describes the intellectual devotion between scholars in love, the joy of rearing a beautiful daughter, Stoner’s pain at his wife’s machinations, or the threadbare connection between Stoner and his family.

Aside from the beautiful and evocative language, the pure humanity of Stoner’s life resonates with anyone who has ever dealt with difficult relationships or moral ambiguity. He is the archetypal stoic, doing what he is supposed to without complaint. He writes his book, teaches his students, rears his child, and cares for his ailing wife all with the same plodding fortitude that we both pity and admire. We, the readers, know that his marriage is toxic and wish escape for him, but it doesn’t even occur to him to seek an out. We can see that he should stand up for himself at home and at work but he doesn’t imagine himself some sort of hero, he simply does what he feels is expected of him with no reservations.

Another aspect of the novel that sets it apart is its subtlety. I’ve read a few books recently (reviews pending) that irritated me in their childishness. I resent feeling my emotions manipulated by superfluous scenes and being spoon fed my philosophy. I mentioned when reviewing some of Robert Heinlein’s novels that while I appreciate the sexual forwardness of his dystopian futures, those same mores are so obvious they are almost insulting. Williams writes about Stoner’s actions, the scenes he finds himself in, but not much about emotions or motivations. There is a scene in the book where Stoner’s wife goes home after her father dies. She painstakingly separates out every item her father has ever given her or been responsible for and destroy it. Williams doesn’t tell us why, nor does he employ the omnipotent narrator to tell us how she feels about it, we simply see the scene and are free to draw our own conclusions. Another scene where Stoner and his lover are writing together, composing surveys of literature independent from each other but in the same room. Their work is interrupted often by lovemaking but again, there is very little to tell us how the characters feel other than what we see. Williams paints brilliant, poignant scenes for us and allows us to see what we wish in them.

We watch William Stoner as he stands up for academic integrity and gets bitten for it. He stands up for his relationship with his daughter and is manipulated out of his home because of it. He falls in love and disregards social mores and in turn watches his lover get run out of town. He works towards a relationship with his daughter only to watch her mother push her into a shotgun wedding and alcoholism. Through it all he remains quiet and thoughtful, a listener rather than a contributor, often helpless in the face of his circumstances. Here is a quiet life, remarkable in its plainness but beautifully wrought. John Williams is a brilliant author. I can only hope that someday someone will write about me the way he writes about William Stoner.